In most ways, the Summer Solstice of June 2009 is likely to work and play out in the Northern Hemisphere much as it has for thousands of years now. Ever since we lived in prehistoric matriarchies in the Age of Cancer (c. 8,790 – 6,630 BCE), we have intuited that this major hinge point in Earth’s annual cycle is connected with the sacred feminine, the element of water, and the Moon. This is why, long before the first zodiacs began to evolve, we had a knowing, that was not yet a proving, that the month that begins with the Summer Solstice—what we would later call Cancer month—was ruled by the Moon and water, and somehow began a “female” half of the year.
This made sense in the Age of Cancer when the Agricultural Revolution came, and along with it better techniques of irrigation and water management that would get crops, animals, and babies safely through the hot ripening season and on to the harvest. The “second half” of the year was clearly more domestic, the Mother Time when farmers had to work their fields, families gathered at harvest home to reap and store the grain, and then celebrate Earth’s abundance in the great autumn feasts that marked the climax of the Moon Time, and the coming of the Winter Solstice, when the Sun Boy is born again.
As solar timekeeping evolved in the Age of Aries (2,310—150 BCE), the practical basis of all this got plainer. We understood that at the Summer Solstice, “the Sun sticks”—the literal meaning of solstice—as he rises at his northernmost point on the horizon, and reaches his highest arc in the sky. From now, even though the year’s hottest months are just ahead, the days begin, imperceptibly at first, to grow shorter. Though the Sun will blaze in all his fiery majesty through Leo month (July 22—August 22), the year has already reversed as of Cancer month (June 21—July 22). The goddess now waxes as the god wanes. Solar fire will soon yield to lunar water, as the rites of June—named for the ancient Lady of the House, Juno—are feminine. Women’s mysteries are taught and received. Birth, sisterhood, and community are celebrated on the green Earth, amid standing stones and near springs that mean the flowing of pure water and new life. Dancers dressed in silver, white, and blue come to the circle’s center and lift vessels of water to the Moon, then spin outward to offer a water communion to all.
While the great harvest feasts share the fruits of the field, bread and meat, beer and wine, the Summer Solstice has always been for the honoring of the Water Goddess and the sharing of water. Naturally, the feminine energy of this Solstice is strongest when it comes on or just after the full Moon, as it did in the momentous year of 2005. Until this happens again, in 2024, we will not just settle for “the other lunation” at the New Moon Summer Solstice of 2009.
Rather, we are likely to mark this moment of new beginnings actively, even urgently, as we have no choice but to become more aware of the food and water crisis that has loomed larger in our consciousness since last year, and will get critical again in the hot months of this year. As droughts spread, wildfires rage, new schemes hatch and battles brew over the control of water resources, the journey I am on now, that I had thought would take me to the high sacred sites of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Glastonbury Tor, Stonehenge, Avebury, and Cusco now transmutes into a journey from water to water. I start at the “basilica” of Justinian’s gigantic cistern of Yerebatan Sarai Sarnici—where the babble of voices heard in the great church and the Blue Mosque nearby hushes into an awe that sounds like reverence for the water itself—and where the guards report that, for reasons they can’t explain, tourist traffic to the water is much heavier now. Then I go to the Celtic sacred springs of Cornwall, the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, the Isis shrine city of Oxford and, when the time comes, inevitably, to Lake Titicaca.
I am not the only one to be doing this. Since the beginning of this year, as though Mother Earth and the Water Goddess themselves were sending out the call, the witches and the shamans have been gathering where dormant springs have been bubbling up again, and where traditions of water worship and ceremony are splashing back to life.
The best place to begin a Water Journal 2009 would likely be in eastern Europe, where peoples newly freed from Soviet ideology and Orthodox Christianity go again where their ancestors went long before Stravinsky recreated The Rite of Spring. On Janunary 6 in Moscow, as Ellen Barry reported, some 30,000 people observed the Russian Orthodox feast of the Epiphany by immersing themselves in icy rivers and ponds.1 Such ecstatic water rituals, as it turns out, have been done for a long time.
What is different now is the people’s longing to celebrate something “ancient, real”—and to do it with an emphasis that is not formally or even faintly religious, but earth-affirming in the tradition of “wild souls,” as one Russian put it. “We are made of water. Without water we cannot survive.”
The hot water has been packing them in too, according to another Ellen Barry report on the famous Witch’s Well of Tuhala in Estonia.2 This spectacular hot spring has long been sacred to the local animist religions of Taarausk, centered on worship of the forest god Taara—it’s intriguing how many green deities from so many traditions bear versions of this sacred name—and Maausk, which means “faith of the earth.” Under the center of Tuhala, fifteen rivers flow through underground caverns, crashing and rumbling in sounds that are said to be ghost witches in their sauna, beating one another with birch branches until the Witch’s Well erupts, as it did this winter for the first time in three years. When it does, witches and shamans and students of magic come to do ritual, and mothers bathe their babies in the earth-scented mist and warm water.
The reverence for water is resurging all over our planet now in all kinds of mystical, mundane, and even nearly comical ways. The first water cue to come yesterday, when I stopped to use free WiFi, is that McDonald’s is now equipping all its restaurants in the UK with waterless toilets, each of which will allegedly save 100,000 gallons of water a year. Granted, this company has always had an opportunistic genius for spotting new trends to exploit and ride—but why quibble? The point is to save the water.
Other intriguing clues emerge too. Interest surges in the Nabataean sacred site of Petra, which owed its wealth in ancient times to its revolutionary technologies for storing and purifying water, and a Brown University team has nearly completed excavation at an immense temple that was built on the city’s main cistern to honor Al-Uzza, the Water Goddess.3
On the Summer Solstice days of June 21 – 24, people in the Northern Hemisphere will gather for water rituals like this one:
In the center, mothers who have given birth for the first time stand back-to-back, holding their babies, turning to the left, the direction of the heart axis. In the second circle, facing in, hands joined, are the other women who have given birth, all circling to the left too. Outside of these two central circles are other circles that hold everyone else: the third circle turning right, the fourth left, and so on. The easiest footwork is a simple step-and-meet linked with the rowing motion often used in Sufi dance to symbolize all hands pulling together across the sea of love toward the One Goal, this time the saving of water, and with it the preservation of life.
Not surprisingly, the chants that accompany this kind of mandala, and many other Summer Solstice rites, are water chants:
We all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return
Like a drop of rain going to the ocean.
The circle turns in its own time by the rhythm of the Moon, and the only rule that applies is to remember that the Summer Solstice is above all, like the Mother Month it heralds, best done in patience, inclusiveness, and kindness, in a spirit of comedy that honors all roles and unites them in the celebration of life.
As I write this beside the Isis River in Oxford, it comes clear now that the Return of the Goddess happens now not only in the resurgence of the sacred feminine. It happens too, inevitably, in the most basic practical terms of planetary survival and healing. It flows this month in rites of water.
1 Ellen Barry, “Russians revive tradition with faithful, icy plunge.” International Herald Tribune, Jan. 22, 2009.
2 Ellen Barry, “Animist beliefs come back to life in Estonia.” New York Times, Jan. 13, 2009.
3 See “Asking the Water” at http://www.hermes3.net/may108.htm.